Spoiler alert: spoilers await spirits of the pastIndie darling production company A24 has struck gold again with their new release, spirits of the pastIt is arguably the best single movie of 2023 so far. The film focuses on Nora, a young Korean girl who immigrated to Canada as a child and is now trying to make a living in New York City. One day, she meets Hae-sung, her childhood friend, and they spend the day reconnecting and reflecting on the different directions their lives have taken.
What unfolds is a deeply poignant piece of memory full of longing and heartache, but another thematic dimension to the film is arguably more contentious. Much like modern classics like boyhood And moon lightAnd spirits of the past It reveals itself as a fascinating exploration of identity, its malleability over time, and the unseen effects we have on each other’s lives.
Hye Sung and Arthur: Nora’s Romantic Identity
The most pressing place these themes come up is in Nora’s relationships with Hae-sung, her childhood friend, and Arthur, her new husband. Nora, born Na Young, was almost inseparable from Hae Sung when they were children in Korea, and their closeness often led them to joke about getting married one day. However, their lives change when Na Young’s family emigrates to Canada, where she changes her name to Nora, and Hae Sung leaves soon after to complete his mandatory military service.
Twelve years later, they reconnect on social media as Nora prepares to attend a writer’s retreat and Hae Sung prepares to move to China. Reluctantly, Nora decides to break off contact with him again to focus on her ambitious career as a playwright.
Another twelve years later, Nora marries Arthur, a writer she met at the resort, and Hae-sung breaks off their impending engagement. He heads to New York to meet with Nora and hopefully seal an emotional one by talking to her one last time. The two spend the day catching up on each other’s lives and reflecting on how much they have changed.
From the beginning, it is clear that Nora has no intentions of anything romantic with Hae-sung, even though he clearly has unrequited feelings for her. This also becomes a source of concern for Arthur, who in one scene jokes that he is afraid of being the character in Nora’s story who leaves to live with her childhood sweetheart.
However, Nora explains that Arthur is her true love and that even if there are differences between them, namely the fact that he can’t speak Korean, they are meant to be.
At the same time, it is implied that Nora’s childhood relationship with Hae-Sung means that they have a connection and a shared experience that Arthur will never truly understand, even if said experience is not romantic. These relationships with Nora’s life are essential to her identity and do not entirely define or cancel out the other.
Korea and America: Nora’s National Identity
Of course, the other major way the film explores the elasticity of Nora’s identity is by exploring her relationship with her homeland. Just like last year’s Best Picture winner, Everything everywhere at onceAnd spirits of the past It explores how issues in modern life, namely immigration and generational trauma, affect one’s identity. As evidenced by her move to Canada as a child, Na Young literally changed her name to Nora. After the first jump, it was mentioned that she no longer spoke Korean to anyone except her mother.
Realizing the sacrifices her parents made in trying to give her better chances of financial success than she would have had in Korea, Nora realizes that part of the deal is making sacrifices. So, as cold as it sounds when she broke off contact with Hae-Sung after they first reconnected, it makes perfect sense. Nora is focused solely on her future, no longer interested in what might have been with Hae-sung, and isolating her is effectively a way to isolate herself from her past in Korea.
Symbolically, this is further evidenced by Nora’s later relationship with Arthur, as he literally cannot speak Korean. However, as the film explains, some people are entangled in fate, or “in-yun,” and Nora’s past cannot remain buried forever.
So, when she reconnects with Hae-Sung while he’s visiting New York City, she reconnects in equal parts with him and her relationship with her home country. As mentioned, she never intended to have a flashback or stay preoccupied with what might have happened had she stayed in Korea. But it nonetheless serves as a way to allow her to come to a conclusion with her past before continuing to move on.
An overwhelming emotional experience
The film’s ending is almost overwhelmingly emotional, as it beautifully ties together the film’s themes and Nora’s character. As night falls, Nora Hye-sung walks him to his Uber as they speculate when they will meet again and how much it would change between them if that happened.
Director Celine Song expertly uses visual storytelling in this scene; She blocks Nora’s flight to knock down Hae Sung while walking from right to left. This shows Nora’s short journey as she returns to her past, and once Hae-sung leaves, she comes to terms with her current direction in life and walks from left to right back to Arthur. Song visually displays Nora’s decision to keep moving forward wherever life takes her.
Inevitably, it wouldn’t be the same in another twelve years. But she successfully reconciles many competing parts of her life, namely her past in Korea and her present in America with Arthur. People are complex and multifaceted, and Nora’s understanding of how our identity is shaped helps make it spirits of the past One of the best and most sympathetic movies of 2023.